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Part II: Navigating International Legal Challenges: Filipinos Seeking Divorce Abroad, International Law Violations, and Progress in Domestic Legal Reform

Asia, Featured

Part II: Navigating International Legal Challenges: Filipinos Seeking Divorce Abroad, International Law Violations, and Progress in Domestic Legal Reform

By Vayuna Gupta

The first part of this article highlighted the absence of a legal provision for absolute divorce in the predominantly Roman Catholic Philippines, creating an often-insurmountable barrier for survivors of domestic violence seeking an exit from abusive relationships.

This second part explores the ramifications for Filipino women in trans-national marriages who seek divorces within the constraints imposed by Philippine domestic law, as well as the international legal obligations of the Philippines and the current trajectory for the country.

As heterogeneous societies and globalization continue to rise, trans-national marriages have become increasingly common. Complexity arises when the divorce laws of the partners’ respective states of nationality differ. This places the Philippines in a unique predicament as a nation because it does not offer absolute divorces for its domestic population.

Options for Filipino Women Seeking Divorce Abroad

According to the Civil Code of the Philippines, laws relating to family rights and duties are binding on Filipinos living abroad, too. A marital bond between two citizens of the Philippines married under Philippine law cannot be dissolved with an absolute divorce obtained abroad. However, there is an exception to this rule when a Filipino spouse’s partner is a foreigner and the divorce has been validly obtained abroad by the foreigner spouse of a Filipino (Article 26 of the Code).[1]

In 2018, in the case of Republic of Philippines v. Marelyn Manalo (Manalo)[2], Manalo filed for cancellation of her entry of marriage in the Philippines on the grounds that she had filed for and received a decree of divorce with her Japanese husband in Japan. The issue that arose was that under a strict interpretation of Article 26 of the Code, unless the foreigner spouse of the Filipino initiated the divorce, Article 26 would not grant the Filipino the right to marry again.

The Philippine Supreme Court, en banc, held that “validly obtained” under Article 26 would mean a divorce that has been obtained by due process according to the law of the foreign land. The Court explained that the intention of the legislature was not to insist that the divorce be initiated by the foreign spouse.[3] It would be absurd to keep the Filipino spouse married to a foreign spouse, when in law the foreign spouse is not married to the Filipino.

The Court also came down heavily against the Catholic Church’s argument that an absolute divorce is against the customs and traditions in the Philippines. It stated that “none of our laws should be based on any religious law, doctrine or teaching otherwise the separation of Church and State would be violated.”[4]

In 2022, the third division of the same court in Republic of Philippines v. Helen Bayong-Saito[5] held that even when a divorce was sought by a Filipino spouse and their foreign spouse jointly in another nation, it would be recognized under the Filipino Law and the Filipino spouse would be free to remarry, as long as the divorce was obtained under due process of the foreign law.

Is the Philippines in Violation of International Human Rights Standards? 

Divorce is acknowledged under international human rights law as a means to safeguard families, children, and women while eliminating discrimination. By denying the Filipino population the option to dissolve marriages, the Philippines appears to be in violation of these established international human rights standards.

Article 16 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and Article 23 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) both state that both men and women are entitled to equal rights in a marriage and at its dissolution.

Article 16 of the Convention on Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) obligates states to eliminate discrimination against women in matters of marriage and family relations. The Philippines is a signatory to all these international covenants.

Although these covenants typically address divorce as an issue of non-discrimination rather than strictly a human rights matter[6], Articles 16 of the UDHR and 23 of the ICCPR highlight the state’s responsibility to protect families. A.10 of the International Covenant for Economic, Social and Cultural Rights takes it a step further, obligating states to provide the widest possible protection to families. Once one contracts a marriage, states must provide legislative, administrative, and financial protection to families.

Given the economic vulnerability of women in the Philippines, the link between poverty and violence against women[7], and the prevalence of domestic violence, the country is falling short in its duty to protect families and children.[8] Additionally, General Recommendation 35 to CEDAW obligates states to pursue appropriate measures to end gender-based violence[9], divorce being one such measure.

Navigating the Gap for the Future

Due to pushback from the Catholic Church, though several bills have been introduced in the Philippine Congress historically, none have succeeded yet[10].  However, there appears to be some recent movement towards legalizing absolute divorce.

In March of 2023, the Philippines House of Representatives approved a bill to reinstate absolute divorce for couples in abusive relationships.[11] The Senate Committee on Women, Children, Family Relations, and Gender Equality approved the bill, for the first time in 30 years.[12] The bill awaits the Senate’s second reading, which may happen sometime this year. Earlier bills seeking divorce have often been vetoed by the Senate because of backlash from the Catholic Church.[13]

The Filipino Supreme Court in Manalo noted “In protecting and strengthening the Filipino family as a basic autonomous social institution, the court must not lose sight of the constitutional mandate to value the dignity of every human person, guarantee full respect for human rights, and ensure fundamental equality before the law of men and women.”[14] This observation, coupled with the one underscoring the importance of maintaining the separation between Church and State, indicates a judicial activism stance in acknowledging the necessity for legislation providing the right to divorce.

In conclusion, the lack of legal provisions for absolute divorce in the Philippines not only prevents survivors of domestic violence from escaping abusive marriages, but also places a disadvantage on Filipino women in international marriages, where the legitimacy of their divorces may be scrutinized according to Philippine law. The ongoing legal and legislative developments, despite challenges from the Catholic Church, signal a potential shift towards recognizing the importance of divorce rights. As the nation grapples with these issues, it remains crucial to align its laws with international obligations protecting families, promoting equality, and addressing the vulnerabilities of women.

The judicial activism stance observed in recent court decisions underscores the pressing need for legislation granting the right to divorce while upholding the separation between Church and State.

GRW has collaborated with eight civil society organizations in the Philippines to organize a training program on survivor-centered systemic reforms as part of a Systemic Advocacy Learning Lab.

Vayuna Gupta is the Legal and Policy Advisor for Global Rights for Women.


[1] Family Code, A. 26, Exec. Ord. 209, as amended (Phil.). The judicial decree must be recognized in the Philippines. To do that the parties must have entered a divorce based on the laws of the foreign state.

[2] Republic of The Philippines v. Marelyn Tanedo Manalo (Manalo), G.R No. 221029 (Apr. 24, 2018) (Phil.), https://elibrary.judiciary.gov.ph/thebookshelf/showdocs/1_/64093.

[3] Id.

[4] See Marelyn Tanedo Manalo (Manalo), G.R No. 221029. https://elibrary.judiciary.gov.ph/thebookshelf/showdocs/1_/64093.

[5] Republic of The Philippines v. Helen Bayong-Saito, G.R No. 247297 (Aug. 17, 2022) (Phil.), https://elibrary.judiciary.gov.ph/thebookshelf/showdocs/1_/64093.

[6]Press Release, Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights, Universal Declaration of Human Rights at 70: 30 articles on 30 Articles – Article 16 (Nov. 25, 2018).

[7] Racidon Bernarte, Quennie Marie M. Acedegbega, Mariah Louise A. Fadera, Hanna Jemima G. Yopyop,Violence Against women in the Philippines, 6 Asia Pacific J. of Multidisciplinary Rsch., 117, (2017).

[8] International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, Art.23, Dec. 16, 1966, 999 U.N.T.S 171. ICCPR also obligates states to protect children

[9] UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), General Recommendation No. 35 on Gender-Based Violence Against Women, CEDAW/C/GC/35 (July 26, 2017).

[10] Jeofrey B. Abalos, Divorce and Separation in the Philippines: Trends and Correlates, 36, Demographic Rsch. 1515, 1525, (2017).

[11] House Panel Approved Divorce Bill, CNN Philippines (Mar. 22, 2023, 8:19AM), https://www.cnnphilippines.com/news/2023/3/22/house-panel-approves-divorce-bill.html.

[12] Sui-Lee Wee, ‘Just Like Medicine’: A New Push for Divorce in a Nation Where Its Illegal, The New York Times (Nov. 4, 2023), https://www.nytimes.com/2023/11/04/world/asia/philippines-divorce-illegal-legislation.html ; Hannah Torregoza, Senate Panel OKs Absolute Divorce Bill, Manila Bulletin (Sept. 19, 2023, 2:17AM), https://mb.com.ph/2023/9/18/senate-panel-okays-absolute-divorce-bill.

[13] Ilona Barrero, Divorce Prohibition in the Philippines: A System Serving the Patriarchy, Gender in Geopolitics Institute (June 27, 2023), https://igg-geo.org/?p=13576&lang=en.

[14] Republic of The Philippines v. Marelyn Tanedo Manalo (Manalo), G.R No. 221029 (Apr. 24, 2018) (Phil.), https://elibrary.judiciary.gov.ph/thebookshelf/showdocs/1_/64093.